East coast water supply depends on Lake Okeechobee

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HOLLYWOOD – Changes in the operation of Lake Okeechobee could impact the water supply for Florida’s east coast, according to a presentation given at the Oct. 16 meeting of the South Florida Regional Planning Council and Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council meeting.

Terrie Bates, of Water Resources Consulting, said it is important for communities of Florida’s east cost to participate in the U.S. Army Coprs of Engineers discussion of the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) which is currently in development.

LOSOM will go into effect in 2022 when repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike are complete.

Bates said 6.2 million people live in the area from Palm Beach County south. Those who live in South Florida today are here because of the Central and South Florida Flood Control System. While that flood control system made it possible for the urban and agriculture development in South Florida, it also created some environmental issues.

She pointed out 30% of Florida’s population lives along the lower east coast.

Everyone in south Florida relies on Lake Okeechobee and the water conservation areas (WCAs) to replenish and recharge drinking water and irrigation supplies, she said. Water from the Big O is also essential to maintain ground water and canal levels and protect against saltwater intrusion that could contaminate well fields.

Water from the lake is a “key component we are going to be relying on to combat salt water intrusion,” Bates explained. It’s important to deliver water to the coastal canals, she said. During a drought, the danger of salt water intrusion into the well fields is a significant issue.

The Lake Worth draingage district has an incredible system of canals which relies on Lake Okeechobee to recharge those well fields, she explained. “when we get into drought conditions, the ability to deliver water to the south is much more difficult.”

It’s been 27 years since the Corps of Engineers started the process to re-evaluate the Central and South Florida Flood Control System, Bates said. In 1994 Gov Lawton Chiles created the governor’s commission for a sustainable south Florida and tasked it with developing and implementing options for restoring the ecosystem in cooperation with all of the stakeholders,

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, approved in 2000, is designed to capture water that was being wasted to tide, not impacting the water needed for water supply, she explained.

Under CERP, 80 percent of “new water” is reserved for the environment, she explained. CERP projects have a 50-50 cost share between the federal government and the State of Florida. On the federal side, they wanted to make sure the “new water” was primarily used for environmental issues and State of Florida would not try to take the water for additional developments, she explained.

She said it is every important for those who live on the east coast to engage with the corps as they move forward with the development of LOSOM. “Water supply for South Florida is definitely linked to Lake Okeechobee,” she said.

In the public comments period, Palm Beach County Commission Melissa McKinlay said “Too often this is an argument about farmers against coastal communities. It’s a water supply issue. It’s an entire east coast of Florida concern.”

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